Tuesday 23 January 2018

Russian advance on Syria 'biggest since the Cold War'

Angela Merkel and Vladimir Putin
Angela Merkel and Vladimir Putin

Roland Oliphant in Moscow

Russia has begun its biggest surface deployment since the end of the Cold War as it aims to effectively end the war in Syria on the eve of the US election, Nato officials warned last night.

The Kremlin is sending the full might of its Northern Fleet and part of the Baltic Fleet to reinforce a final assault on the city of Aleppo in a fortnight, according to Western intelligence.

The final bombardment is designed to shore up the Assad regime by wiping out rebels - paving the way for a Russian exit from the civil war.

The assault on the city will also serve to highlight US inaction in the run-up to election day and may aid Donald Trump.

British Royal Navy warships are due to escort a group of eight Russian warships, including the country's only aircraft carrier, as they sail past the UK on their way to the Mediterranean.

A senior Nato diplomat said the deployment from the Northern Fleet's base near Murmansk would herald a renewed attack in Aleppo. "They are deploying all of the Northern Fleet and much of the Baltic Fleet in the largest surface deployment since the end of the Cold War," the diplomat said.

"This is not a friendly port call. In two weeks, we will see a crescendo of air attacks on Aleppo as part of Russia's strategy to declare victory."

The additional military firepower is designed to drive out or destroy the 8,000 rebels in Aleppo, the only large city still in opposition hands, and to allow Vladimir Putin, the Russian president, to start a withdrawal.

An intensified air campaign in eastern Aleppo, where 275,000 people are trapped, would further worsen ties between Moscow and the West, which said the Kremlin may be responsible for war crimes.

Mr Trump has consistently praised Mr Putin as a strong leader and has promised a closer relationship with Russia if he wins the November 8 US election. He has suggested that, if elected, he would meet the Russian president before the inauguration in January.

Mr Putin has returned the compliment, calling the Republican nominee "outstanding and talented" - one of his closest political allies, Vladimir Zhirinovsky, urged Americans to vote for Mr Trump, calling him a "gift to humanity".

Barack Obama said earlier this week that Mr Trump's admiration of Mr Putin was "unprecedented". Mr Obama said: "Mr Trump's continued flattery of Mr Putin and the degree to which he appears to model many of his policies and approaches to politics on Mr Putin...is out of step with not just what Democrats think but out of step with what up until the last few months, almost every Republican thought."

Meanwhile, a Norwegian newspaper quoted the head of the Norwegian military intelligence service as having said the ships involved in the push on Syria "will probably play a role in the deciding battle for Aleppo".

Moscow and Damascus have both reiterated that bombing will only target the around 8,000 US-backed rebel fighters and 900 former or current members of al-Nusra thought to be inside east Aleppo's siege barricades.

A three-day-long humanitarian ceasefire due yesterday to evacuate the wounded and allow rebels and civilians the ability to leave for neighbouring rebel-held Idlib province was criticised by the UN, who said it could not carry out aid work unless security guarantees were met.

Retaking the entire city would be a significant victory for President Bashar al-Assad, effectively relegating rebels to the far north and south of Syria.

"With this assault, it should be enough to allow a Russian exit strategy if Moscow believes Assad is now stable enough to survive," the diplomat said.

Russia began providing military support to the Syrian regime in September 2015, after parliament voted to assist Mr Assad in defeating Isil.

An October IHS Conflict Monitor report found that Russian air strikes on Isil territory have decreased from 26pc of total strikes at the beginning of 2016 to 17pc in the third quarter, suggesting that Moscow's real intention is to "transform the Syrian civil war from a multi-party conflict into a binary one between the Syrian government and jihadist groups like [Isil]; thereby undermining the case for providing international support to the opposition." (© Daily Telegraph London)


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